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The Religion of Action

Effective Living
Wisdom of Ages


Dr. Iraj Taraporwala



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Ushta ahmai yahmai  ushta kahmai-cit.
Happiness (be)  to him through whom happiness (is caused)  to another.

( Gatha Ushtavaiti: Yasna, xliii, 1.)

The Law of Asha implies a regular and ordered progress in all manifestation.  All beings tend Godward, and human beings are expected to work out their own salvation by their own efforts. God has endowed them with urvan  - that faculty within them that enables them to choose for themselves.  And the choice once made, there is perforce- the necessity of abiding by the consequences. The urvan may learn the lesson through suffering, and may go back upon the evil choice without experience, and learn to walk along the right path at last; but an evil choice, once made, must lead to suffering.  This is the Great Law which has been recognized by all Great Teachers. "As ye sow so shall ye surely reap"  has been the Teaching of every Great Prophet. The Hindus call it the Law of Karma" i.e., the Law of Action (and Reaction).

The philosophies of India, both in the Hindu and the Buddhist systems, have elaborated this Law in great detail, and have carried it to its full logical conclusion. They have clearly recognized that occasionally the consequences of our acts are not experienced within the limits of one life, and that consequently more lives than one are needed to have the full experiences and to learn the lesson  which this Law is meant to teach.  In no case could there be an eternal Heaven or an eternal Hell for acts done with all our limitations during our short lives upon earth. Thus as a necessary corollary to the Law of Karma they have laid down the doctrine of Reincarnation; and in this, respect the systems of India stand out in sharp contrast with the “orthodox” Christian and Islamic dogma.

In Zoroastrian theology the Law of Action and Reaction has been clearly enunciated, in many places both in the Gathas and in the later books. Thus in Yasna, xxx, 11, we are told about "the Law which Mazda hath ordained of happiness and misery -long suffering to the followers of the Druj (Falsehood ), and happiness to the Righteous". Be it noted that this passage  from the Gathas does not speak of condemnation or reward through all eternity.  Even in later times eternal Heaven or Hell is not what has been meant, and wherever such a statement occurs it is very probably due to Semitic influences.

But again we must admit that nowhere in the Gathas do we get an explicit statement that the human being has to return again and again to this worldly existence in order to atone for his faults and to learn his lessons. There are some passages which may imply such a conclusion, but these are at the best doubtful. In the whole range of the religious literature of Zoroastrianism there is but one book where there is an explicit mention of this idea of reincarnation; and that book is the Desatir whose very authenticity has been doubted by many competent scholars.  So all we feel warranted in saying is that the idea of reincarnation  may be deduced by some sort of implication, but it is nowhere clearly put forward. And we must also admit that in the earlier texts, at any rate, there is nothing which is opposed to such an idea. On the whole the evidence for the doctrine of reincarnation in Zoroastrian Faith is negative, although the Law of Karma is exceedingly clearly put forward and has been duly emphasized.

The clearly expressed idea of progress along the Path of Asha seems to imply stages in the spiritual life and growth of an individual. This, too, might be taken by some as further .corroborative evidence for the idea of reincarnation. But all such implications would rather imply a will to believe, and could not be admitted as positive evidence. Let us, therefore, be content to say that there is no evidence that this was a belief of Zoroastrian theology, neither is there anything directly controvert such a belief.

At any rate the goal of our human life has been unequivocally, set forth by the Prophet - and that is to tread the Path of Asha, and along it to reach our God. This can be achieved by several methods, - through Knowledge, through Devotion or through  Action. There are hints about all these three ways scattered through the Avesta; but the method emphasized is that of Action.  Zoroastrianism is above all a Religion of Action -Karma Yoga, to use the Hindu phrase. The Message of the Teacher is mainly concerned with action -right action which will help the Good Spirit and defeat the Evil One. The whole Teaching has been compressed into three commandments- Humata, Hukhta, Huvarshta (Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds).  And though, as necessarily, thoughts come first, as the roots of all action, still Good Deeds constitute the chief qualification in treading the Path of Asha. God has given us powers and abilities in order that we may act, that  we may become fighters in the ranks of "the followers of Asha".

Like every other religion Zoroastriarnsm has chants which are regarded as specially sacred. One such is the short prayer known as the Ahuna-Vairya.  It has been said at one place in the Avesta, that if this prayer is repeated properly even once in the correct rhythm and intonation, and with a clear understanding of its meaning, it is equal in efficacy to the repetition of a hundred other hymns put together.  Zarathushtra Himself is said to have chanted this prayer in order to defeat the Evil Spirit when he came to tempt Him. And again and again the Avesta states that "the Ahuna- Vairya protects the self".

Why should this particular prayer have such special efficacy attached to it above all others?  The reason seems to me to be not far to seek. This particular verse has been regarded as embodying within itself the essential of Zoroaster's Teaching.  And therefore the chanting of it with a proper understanding of its meaning is said to possess such wonderful efficacy.  A true grasping of the meaning of the Ahuna-Vairya means a correct understanding of the Teacher's Message. And I believe that it is only this way of regarding this verse that can give a clue to its true meaning. It is really remarkable that every scholar that has attempted to translate this important verse has done it in his own way, there are as many renderings of it as men who have attempted them.  To all these I would here add my own version. 1

This verse is admittedly among the most ancient in the Avesta, according to many it is pre-Zoroastrian in date. Originally it must have stood at the head of the first Gatha to which it has given its name, Ahunavaiti.  The verse is arranged in three lines and consists of twenty one words, each word standing for one of the original twenty -one books of the Zoroastrian Scriptures. The verse runs as follows :

Yatha, Ahu vairyo, atha Ratush -Ashat chit hacha;
'Vangheush dazda Manangh6 shyaothananiim angheush  Mazdai;
Kshathremchii Ahurai a yim drigubyo dadat vastarem.

I propose the following rendering :

Just as a Ruler (is) all-powerful (among men), so (too, is) the Spiritual- Teacher, even by reason of His Asha; the gifts of Good Mind (are) for (those) working for the Lord of Life; and the Strength of Ahura (is granted) unto (him) who to (his) poor (brothers) giveth help.

Each of the three lines contains an Eternal Truth.

The first line asserts the existence of Spiritual Teachers as a class of Supermen. They are termed Ratus, and Their position in the spiritual world is like that of the Ruler (Ahu) in this lower world of ours. This is a very important assertion. The Ratus have been mentioned very frequently all over the Avesta, and nearly always  they are called Ashahe Rathwo (Lords of Asha). This first line of the Ahuna-Vairya, says clearly that "by reason of His Asha" the Ratu is great: His position is owing to the fact that He has been treading the Path of Asha., and that He is much further advanced upon it than are the ordinary mortals in the world.

The following two lines of this verse show in what, this Asha consists,  and they also set forth the reward that awaits the person following the Path.  In these we find the Religion of Action enunciated in the clearest terms. Other ways also lead to salvation but the prophet of Iran has laid special emphasis upon the Action side. This idea has dominated the Faith 2 throughout. its history for never has seclusion from the world  and from worldly duties formed part of the Zoroastrian belief.  God has sent us into the world that we may perform the task allotted to us.  We are to work all our lives and work in the right manner .

So the second line tells us that "the gifts of Good Mind are  for those working for the Lord of Life". Working here is the most important word. The Parsis wear the sacred girdle round the waist, and at the time of prayers this is untied and tied on again. It is tied round with four knots, two in the front and two behind.  And the two front knots are tied each with a repetition of this verse, the actual tying being at the word Shyaothananam (working). This is to remind us that we are girding up to be workers for the Lord, to be soldiers on His side. Our life is meant not for mere contemplation and dreaming about Good, but in active pursuit of Good and also in active fighting against Evil.  We have to become Good through doing good deeds, and by fighting against all Evil and iniquity. A true follower of Zarathushtra is he who is always ready to help in the hour of another's need, who is always ranged on the side of justice and truth.  For such a person is said to be working for the Lord of  Life". And to him as reward come "the gifts of Good Mind".  Vohu-Mano (Good Mind) is one of the six Holy Immortals, the great Powers that stand next to Ahura, the Lord of Life Himself.  These Holy Immortals are in fact  “Attributes of God Himself", in most places but “vaguely personified in the Gathas. Good Mind is the Mind of the Lord  Himself; and the gifts from Him are the insight and the inspiration  that come to the human being who is striving upwards to realize the highest.  As we advance we begin to see clearer and clearer, our vision of God's Plan gets ever wider and wider. If we fulfill one duty to the best of our abilities, the one next following would be done better, for the first task well done clears our understanding, and we see better how to proceed. Good Mind has helped us, He has given us His gift of understanding, for these have been reserved only for those who work for the  Lord. True understanding of the work of the Lord - the only work that matters - is not for the mere dreamer, for the mere student sitting down in quiet meditation all for himself.  This is why in a former chapter I have asserted that we come to understand the Gathas (the words of the Master Himself) better, as we try to live the life enjoined therein.  No Scripture in the world can be understood merely by analyzing its ,words and its grammar: it has to be lived and practiced.  And when  we live the life according to the rules laid down in a. Scripture we are following some Divine Messenger and we are trying to work for the Lord; and it is then that Good-Mind sends us His gifts, that clear our understanding and show us the next step on our upward march along the Path of Asha.

The last line points out the best way in which we may work for the Lord.  This is the Way of Service, "giving help to the poor", says the verse. And we have to understand “poor”  not in the usual restricted sense of those lacking material goods of the world, but in the far wider sense of those who are lacking in anything whatsoever, whether material, mental or spiritual. If we possess anything which our brother lacks, we are the richer and he the poorer by comparison. Our riches may consist in bodily strength, or in wealth and worldly power; they may consist in spiritual insight, or in Divine Wisdom; -whatever they be, God hath bestowed them upon us not for our benefit, but that we may share them with our brothers and that the world be made richer through our possessing these gifts. The gifts of God are not to be hoarded, but they are to be spent freely in the service of our brothers. "Freely  have ye received, freely give" -such has been the teaching of all religions. No man can be saved alone and for himself. Such a thought would be the very height of selfishness, and this thought of the self first has always been the strongest weapon of the Evil One.  No selfish person, who has used the gifts of God for himself alone,  who, in other words has misused them, can ever find grace in His sight. His blessings are not for the selfish but for the selfless. To those who share the gifts of God with their poor brothers cometh "the Strength of the Lord". This is another of the Holy Immortals. The holy man, the, servant of humanity, gets first of all "the gifts of Good Mind" in order that he may see the Path clearly before him, and next there cometh unto him "the Strength of the Lord" to help him to tread it.  Strength flows in upon him in ever increasing measure, in exact proportion as he shares the blessings of Heaven with his poorer brothers. The higher the gifts a man possesses, the larger is the number of  people he can help; and as these gifts are used in the service of his brother-men, God grants him Strength for greater service.

Thus the best reward for the Service of Humanity is Strength  to do greater Service. Thus does the individual grow ever greater and wiser and stronger, constantly unfolding higher  and diviner powers. And as the individual grows in spiritual stature he enfolds a larger and still larger number of his "poor" brothers in his loving compassion, until at last we see a Great Soul, who has attained the rank of the World-Teacher, like Zarathushtra, Whose love and strength encompass the whole of humanity, Who stands forth as the World-Savior, the "Lord  of Lords, the Teacher of Teachers".


1 The word used in tanu which literally means 'the body' ; but the word is often used to mean 'the ego', 'the self' just as in Sanskrit
I feel that the simplest rendering possible of these lines is the nearest to the original.